1 Dec 2013, Ceuta, Spain on the African continent
We rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border. Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. “Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta”.
We huddled into the van. Lots of smoking and a smell of Moroccan hashish. Our lad explained what he knew of our situation. I was relying on George’s Spanish to complete.
“So what do you want to do?” said Mohammed.
I didn’t know yet, but I needed to leave a truck and the trailer here for some time, possibly 10 days, possibly quite a bit longer.
“No Problem. €15 per truck per day.”
If I went down to Mauritania and sold Maud and returned for Betsy that would be about €150. Not bad for peace of mind.
A hot tagine appeared at the door in the hands of a toothless hoody, with a sack of bread placed before us. Mohammed broke us off some bread and took the top off the tagine declaring: “Bishmilla Parking Marmeta”. I got the name now: “marmeta” meant cooking pot all over Africa. We had landed in a parking cooking pot!
I hadn’t eaten properly for a day and a half. The warm food was deliciously other – the taste of fruits, nuts and spices of the orient. I felt comfortable and familiar in an African way, something I had left behind in Mali two months ago. It’s the warm bosom of an African community, and although we were still technically in Europe, we were clearly amongst Africans. Moroccans don’t really see themselves as African, their focus is much more on Europe, but they are more African than European whether they like it or not.
I sensed salvation to my predicament lay here in this car park on a windy mound looking east out to sea, north to Europe and south to Africa. In all my travels help and solutions always come from the community, never from authorities or embassies.
I can’t converse with Mohammed. He speaks no French or English and I speak little Spanish and worse Arabic. But we communicate as brothers.
He is the ‘kindness of strangers” the traveller meets frequently and relies upon to get through the journey.
On that first day in the parking lot I went over to Mohammed squashed up in his van with his boys to negotiate a better price. He immediately dropped it by a third “because you are helping the poor, like me” he laughed and indicated the waifs and strays he had taken in and surrounded himself with in the caravan. “How can I help you? Whatever I can do I will, I want to help your journey, tell me?”
I thanked him and told him he had already helped by giving me breathing space.
Later that day I was preparing to leave again for the border with Maud and the trailer, but again I wasn’t convinced we should be going, I was feeling rushed for the George’s sake because of previous delays, but again, before a crucial decision I knew this was unwise and something was telling me I needed to stop here the night, I needed to take stock. I needed to get this next step right or this whole trip might be over. As though having read my mind Mohammed approached me in my dilemma as I tied up the trailer in the wind and rain with “don’t go now… It is late, tomorrow”. I submitted.
That night Mohammed took me back to his house, nourished me with food, a hot shower and a bed which, having slept in Betsy since Bristol, was luxury.
Since then I have stayed with Mohammed for 10 days. He hasn’t let me pay for anything. He has fed me, housed me, escorted me, encouraged me when I thought of giving everything up and would love to come to Timbuktu to help on the caravan.
Mohammed is a central figure in the community of Principe. Everyone knows him and his patronage gives me the keys of this “village” perched on top of a hill above the parking lot.
It’s a strange community of Moroccans living isolated and marginalised from Spanish Ceuta. Down the road Ceuta is white and gleaming and European. Principe could be any Moroccan town: red, brown, orange and purples, narrow streets and close buildings, cafés filled with smoking men, women selling their produce. Anyone illegal stays within the Principe quater because the police don’t enter. Everyone is unemployed, all talk of the corruption of Ceuta, police harassment, “a prison”. Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever.
Ironically it is a prison to all of us: Spaniards on 3×2 kms of land with seeming little interest in venturing south (in the petrol stations maps of Europe and Spain for sale and not one of Africa); the Moroccans imprisoned as the troublesome underclass; the border officials with their petty rules imprisoned in the resentment of history over this border; and me and my two fat ladies imprisoned from my journey and from fluent communication. The phones don’t work well, even my computer has lost all its memory and is imprisoning me from accessing my photos on my camera and relaying what is going on to the real world of cyber space.
Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever. Their entrapment mirrored my own, but for now I was happy to be trapped here. I had found a new home, a space to think how to get myself out of my own prison of my own making.
Mohammed gave me space to think over my options.
I had to decide how far I could realistically get with these trucks. They were costing me too much and now they were possibly more of a hinderance than a facilitator to the whole return project. Mohammed proposed being my other driver, but I was now looking at my fleet and my 3 blows in 24 hours, plus the burden of responsibility to get to the camps, and felt I had to streamline. Plus if I was having problems already with the trucks being ex-military, what might happen further on? I had been intending to paint them anyway in Morocco for Mali because of all the war machines there, but I hadn’t expected Morocco to be a problem. Only months earlier I met Mike, a crazy Canadian with a Karl Marx beard, who had travelled down in an ex-Austrian military vehicle with no problem.
Was it just this border? The problem was it was going to cost me a ferry back to Algeciras and another ferry to Tanger to find out.
It rained the first few days so no painting was possible. a few people came to enquire if Betsy and Maud were for sale but like most things here in Principe there is much talk but little happens.
I considered all the variations: staying here till I sell them, leaving all with Mohammed and going on down to Mali by hitching and bus, going home and giving up.
For the return, if I went on alone, I have to use my Landcruisers already in Mali, and could pull in others from the refugee community in Ouagadougou and a couple of trucks I know of with people I know.
After a few days the sun came out, the winter gloom slowly lifted. It became clear I wasn’t going to find a quick buyer in Ceuta and I had to just act, I had to do something. I began painting Betsy, to show buyers I was going, I wasn’t hanging on for any buyer, and to give myself something to do.
As I painted her, the purpose flooded back: the refugees – Betsy was perfect. She may be 57 but she’s built for another 50 years. She’s strong, simple and has all she needs to make me a great travelling home after all this. I’ll change her into a hippy wagon, though not too hippy, once Im in Western Sahara the Moroccan police hate anything that smacks of humanitarianism potentially there to sympathise with the Sahawiri of occupied Western Sahara, another dispossessed people. Morocco/Western Sahara is the Israel palestine of Africa, but because it is Africa you probably have never heard of this issue, despite 30 years of UN resolutions against Morocco. Morocco supports western policy, are supportive too of Israel and so the west does nothing to trouble Morocco.
As I painted Betsy, the parking lot boys rallied round, especially when the camera was rolling! If George took a day off I was alone with my work. We got her all white in 3 days. Then I began colouring her up. All white she looked a bit UN! I had to make her look as inoffensive and, if anything slightly ridiculous, to make that initial official impression a smile rather than a growl.
And the result:
When she was done, after big fanfare goodbye to Parking Marmite, we attempted the Ceuta border once more.
Again we felt huge chugging through the lines, but I had the impression that the police were not recognising Betsy with her new look and indeed this was the case with the customs. A kindly looking older man came up and suggested he helped me through. As this was going to be delicate I took him on.
First customs officer got all the way to completing the form but then somone came back and mentioned the word “camion” which she wrote on the back with a question mark and sent me to see an inspector.
The inspector looked her over, checked that no merchandise and was happy to let her go as a camping truck. He took me to his desk, got out his stamp, hovered it above the form then put it aside and said just let the ‘chief” see and pointed to a man in the suit. Rats! That was so close. That stamp was all I needed.
Cheif took a quick glance: “Non, camion, à Tanger!”
I begged him to reconsider. “Ok see the chief”. “But I thought you were the chief”. ‘No I’m the second chief, but I’m sure he will say the same thing.”
Big chief eventually comes out – its the same man who refused my first entry as “military aspect”. Amazingly he didn’t recognise Betsy nor me, but he was not for moving. As a “camion” it had to go via Tanger.
So we rolled back to Parking Marmeta. Would we ever leave?
Ceuta is 60km from Tanger by land, the port even less. No it was not possible for me to take a taxi to Tanger with my papers and photos of the truck and present my case there and if they give the go ahead send message to Ceuta to let me through. No, I had to return to Spain and get another ferry to Tanger.
So last option Tanger. Ferry back to Algeciras and ferry onto Tanger.
After more boring tooing and froing whilst customs decided what Betsy is – a lorry, wrong side drive, a camping car, a wagon, a white elephant or a crazy. Englishman’s idea – at midnight they gave up and stamped the ‘fiche” and we crossed the border with 10 days to get to Mauritania and a high five.
Ah the relief. We were in Africa for proper. Trimmed down, make up on Betsy looked the biz and after nearly 3 weeks trapped in Ceuta it was great to be on the road.
We had a good drive on down to Rabat, stopping off en route to camp up the night.
In Rabat I took Betsy in to have the once over that I had wanted Joe to do before we even left England, to tweak her carburetor to make her more fuel efficient and a few other odds and bods.
A much needed hamam – hot rooms for washing, a bit like Turkish baths but without the bath – was had by all.
When the mechanics were done onto Marrakesh. En route Betsy’s farting began again. The mechanic at Rabat had cured her of her wind but in a high gear she began blowing like a trooper, so rather than continue on to Agadir I called my Moroccan guide Moktar who took us to his mechanic who took great pleasure in showing of his skills on old trucks.
That day I fell ill, just run down. After the mechanic had sorted Betsy I parked her up and slept in the back. That night there was some football match on . In my exhaustion sleeping in a tent on the back of Betsy the city roared – some match was getting this town going man.
Next morning the parking attendant told me it was the Club World Cup semi final. Casablanca, only in the tournament As Morocco are hosts, beat the Brazialian South American champions against all odds 3-1 to go to the final against Bayren Munich. Geroge had been offred tickets and had been at the match.
So with renewed good cheer we hit the road for Agadir. Pulling out of Marrakech I pulled in for a hitcher with a green and white Casablanca scarf on. He jumped into the back of Betsy and within minutes was sheltering from the wind in my tent.
Services, fill up, coffee, greet our new companion “What’s your name me laddie?”